I must admit that I tend to always put plenty of research into a new destination, and that is not only research about sights to see and things to do, but just as much about local lifestyle, traditions, culture, and general day-to-day habits of the locals.
Luckily, I have never dressed as a tourist in those typical outfits of a backpack, sensible pants, all-weather jackets, ugly (if comfortable) sneakers, or sandals and socks, which make you stand out from a mile off. Instead, I dress as I would at home, as if I lived in the place and I’m just heading out for coffee, and this has often paid me back in that people approach me for directions, thinking I am a local.
But it is not just not dressing like a tourist, but it is also knowing a few things about how to order said coffee, how to get around, and how to behave — or, more often, how not to behave.
I learned a lot about how to avoid looking like a tourist on my most recent visit to Rome, from a certain dress code to how to get hold of a taxi. Here are some tips and tricks that will help you navigate La Dolce Vita on your next visit to the Eternal City.
1. No Cappuccino After Midday
This is one most milky coffee-drinking foreigners fall foul of: ordering a cappuccino after midday. In Italy, a frothy cappuccino is associated with breakfast, when you sip it with your cornetto, a croissant. After breakfast, the Italians move onto black coffee, indulging in caffeine shots of espresso (and remember there is no ‘x’ in espresso, it is a soft ‘s’). If you want to come across as Italian but cannot resist the milky addition, then either sneak one on room service rather than in public or try a macchiato, a coffee with just a drop of milk. This is something my husband, who rarely drinks his coffee without milk, learned while I blended in easily because my coffee color of choice is black.
And if you are on a budget, drink your coffee at the bar inside the cafe, which is cheaper and much more authentic, as you will be surrounded by Italians.
2. Drink The Tap Water
Unlike in France, where it is often obvious that you can drink the tap water for free even in good restaurants, in Rome, you tend to see bottled water rather than carafes on dining tables. But that does not mean you cannot drink the tap water safely or get your hydration for free. Many of the smaller restaurants in the side streets are happy to bring you a glass, or pitcher of tap water, saving you plenty of money. Just practice saying: “Per favore, posso avere dell’acqua del rubinetto?”
3. Don’t Hail A Taxi
I spent a lot of time standing by the side of a main road in Rome watching empty taxis ignoring me when trying to hail a ride, cursing the rude drivers. In fact, they were not rude at all; instead, I was simply ignorant of the rules. In Rome, you cannot hail taxis from the side of the road. There are plenty of taxi ranks available, or you can order them via the Uber app on your phone.
If you travel without mobile roaming or a local SIM card, you have the options of ordering the taxi from your hotel Wi-Fi (although if you are staying in the old town, be prepared for quite a long wait) or marking the location of the taxi ranks near the sights you will be visiting. There are always plenty of taxis on standby near the main historic sites. Pay cash or ask if they take cards before you hop in.
4. Dress Up For The City
The Italians are a stylish lot, and, while you see the odd tracksuit or dirty shoes, the true Italians dress up without needing a reason. Just leaving the house is occasion enough to dress well and making a bella figura — always looking your best. It certainly makes for a rather pressing reason to leave your baggy t-shirts and comfy but worn sneakers at home when you find yourself surrounded by people that could easily pose for Vogue Italia. Instead of your comfy travel gear, opt for smart casual, city chic, stick to a small selection of colors, and wear comfy flats rather than walking shoes.
5. Appreciate The Fine Art Of Doing Nothing
Dolce Far Niente
The fine art of doing nothing is probably my favorite Italian cultural habit. It’s about appreciating and savoring every moment, taking life easy, and not rushing. And what better way to experience your time in Italy than sitting in a café, lingering over lunch, sauntering instead of running for a bus, and simply being in Rome, rather than ticking off the must-see sights?
I know it can be difficult to take it slow when you are short of time, only have a few days in Rome, and have so many historic sights to see. But I promise you, by rushing you will miss the essence of the city, the people, and the country. Practice it in small doses, stay a while in a café, maybe skip a sight for a longer lunch, or simply rest a while alongside the Tiber just watching the world go by. You will come away more relaxed and more appreciative of the Italian lifestyle.
6. Learn Some Italian
Italian is, in my opinion, the most beautiful language in the world, and it would be a shame not to learn some of it. Start with buongiorno, best used in the morning until lunchtime but acceptable throughout the day, followed by buonasera in the late afternoon and evening. Informal hello and bye are ciao, while, if unsure how formal you should be, you can use salve, which you probably remember from your school Latin. Add a bit of flair by using your hands, and always accompany a request with per favore, please, and end it with grazie, thank you. And remember not to slip into Spanish, which is easily done.
7. Don’t Eat In Tourist Hotspots
I am still waxing lyrical about the quality of food I encountered even in the smallest of places in Rome, yet I spoke to a friend recently, who had the exact opposite experience. She was utterly disappointed by the food. The difference? I ate away from the main touristy spots, in small side streets, always listening out for Italian speakers before sitting down somewhere.
On the other hand, my friend ate in places such as Piazza Navona, where you have the ambience, the views, and the hustle and bustle, yes, but you also have chefs which cater to people who will only ever have one meal at your restaurant, rather than courting return business. You can be lucky, but generally, it is best to avoid places crawling with other tourists.
A good guideline is the language of the menu, if it is in English or even worse, has pictures, don’t even think about eating there. Reserve the touristy terraces for your aperitivo to get the ambience, but then eat elsewhere.
8. Know The Difference Between Lunch And Dinner
When they have the time, Italians like to linger over lunch rather than dinner. While breakfast tends to be a brief and sweet affair, lunch can take hours, and dinner is often a lighter snack. So, when in Rome, plan your day around the meals, as eating and taking your time over food is a local sport. Italians tend to order an antipasto (appetizer), followed by a primo, which is usually either pasta or risotto, followed by a main, either meat or fish, followed by dessert. And that at lunchtime!
This also explains why in many places there is the riposo, the Italian equivalent of the siesta, when people rest sometime between noon and later in the afternoon. For dinner, people often have maybe a slice of pizza or a salad. But, if you are not a lunchtime eater, restaurants are also quite happy to accommodate you with a larger meal at dinnertime.
9. Eat Your Pasta Like A Local
When it comes to the local cuisine there are a few tips and tricks that allow you to look and behave like a local. One of the main things to know is to eat your pasta with the fork alone. You do not twirl your spaghetti on the spoon, which, if provided, is for mixing the sauce into the pasta, and you certainly never, ever, cut the longer pasta.
Do not add cheese on top of your seafood pasta; nor is it polite to ask for extra cheese, as the chef will have prepared the dish the way he thinks it is perfect. Also, you may well think that your pasta is undercooked, even if you are used to eating it al dente. In Italy, al dente is more undercooked than everywhere else in the world, and you’ll soon appreciate that this is exactly the best way to eat your pasta.
Pro Tip: I often look for books written by locals or expats, such as the lovely How to Be Italian by Maria Pasquale about Italian lifestyle, which gives you an insight into being Italian, and gets you in the mood for travel.